3 min read

How to Rebuild a Toxic Culture That's in Debt

How to Rebuild a Toxic Culture That's in Debt

Imagine your organization, with a hostile, toxic, tense culture, has been losing about $1 million annually for the previous decade -- and you get to become president! Read Mark Maxwell’s true story of what happened next and how this dire culture crisis produced 8 breakthrough wins that might speak to where your culture could be poised to improve.

The Challenge


Mark Maxwell, Prairie College


Recently, Mark Maxwell, President of Prairie College in Alberta Canada, told me, “It was a helpless mess. Our financial situation was so dire, that I titled my first report to our board, ‘Crossing the Red Sea, or the Sea of Red?’"

"Even though our weekly prayer time was open to 180 faculty and staff, only 8 or 12 showed up.”

The Strategy

Prairie’s culture turnaround didn’t happen because of a 60-second toaster approach; it was more like a convection oven that warmed people to what it would take to create deep, real, satisfying, and lasting change. Mark summarizes:

1. Reclaim who you are and why you exist

“We went back to our core vision: ‘To know Christ and to make him known. We reclaimed our core values of being Bible based, Christ centered, discipleship directed, and mission mandated.”

2. First, tell the bad news

“Even when the BCWI survey revealed our culture was toxic, we couldn’t put up with being mediocre. So, I leveraged the bad news. I realized that if I was open about whatever ugly things we needed to address first, people would trust me when I had good news to report.”

3.  Be available

“Back when I was in graduate school, Goldman Sachs was visiting our college. One of our students asked the presenter, ‘What does your firm do better than other investment banks?’ I thought he would say, ‘provide money, or advice, or connections.’ His answer surprised me; ‘What makes us better is that we’re available to our clients.’ Today, I keep an open door to make myself available to every employee.”

[shareable cite="Mark Maxwell"]You don’t have to take everyone’s advice, however you do want to listen carefully to what each employee has to say.”[/shareable]

4. Know your client

“One big key to transforming our culture was realizing that, as president, my client wasn’t our students, but rather our faculty and staff. If I invest in and look after our faculty and staff, then they will be better and more effective as they look after our students.”

 5. Listen, listen, listen

“You don’t have to take everyone’s advice, however you do want to listen carefully to what each person has to say. If you can listen for what matters most to them and repeat back the points he or she is making, they’ll know you care about them and are apt to listen to you the next time you’re in conversation.”

 6. Forget unanimity

“By holding out of the final vote you’re abdicating control to the one hold-out voter, which is a form of anarchy. Instead, pay full attention to those with differing opinions. In fact, the one person closest to the fire may have the strongest, wisest perspective that trumps all other votes.”

 7. Make your cuts (and then stick around)

“There’s a popular ‘truth’ that says whoever lays off people can’t be around for the rebuild because they have used up all their ‘capital.’ I disagree. Whoever makes the cuts has also made the choice on who to keep and needs to stick around to make it work. Also retained employees will realize, ‘I’m needed and have a part to play.’”

8. Celebrate!

“It was important to affirm the goodness of God, our work, and to enjoy each other. The whole continuum from sacred to social matters. For example, staff potlucks used to be painful. They hit an all-time low when one person brought half a bag of potato chips. Today, potlucks are can’t-miss events as people vie to take home the prize of wooden tongs for best salad, an antique soup ladle for best main dish, and a prized cowbell for best dessert. We’re on mission and financially stable, making a profit. And, 50 to 60 show up for our weekly prayer time.”

The Results

In 2015, seven years after its first BCWI Employee Engagement Survey revealed that Prairie College was mired in a severe toxic culture, the school achieved one of the greatest culture gains among the 900 organizations BCWI has served. Prairie has recently been certified again, as a 2018 Best Christian Workplace with its highest score ever.

Perhaps, Prairie’s best results of its flourishing culture are tucked inside Mark’s prayers for the future. While he was driving recently he was praying: “. . .that Prairie would grow from our 270 students to 750 on campus, 1,000 online and another 500 inside prisons.”

Clearly, Prairie’s flourishing culture is breathing new life and hope into its mission “To know Christ and to make Him known.”

It’s Your Turn!

Which of these eight breakthroughs, above, bring to mind your current culture challenges? How might you be praying for God’s desires and direction with these concerns?

Next Week!

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